Wealthier LA neighborhoods use on average three times as much water

As California faces a major water shortage, a new analysis shows wealthier Los Angeles neighborhoods use much more water:

Residents in communities such as La Canada Flintridge, Newport Beach, Malibu and Palos Verdes all used more than 150 gallons of water per capita per day in January. By contrast, Santa Ana used just 38 gallons and communities in Southeast L.A. County used less than 45.

Water usage in Los Angeles was 70 gallons per capita. But within the city, a recent UCLA study examining a decade of Department of Water and Power data showed that on average, wealthier neighborhoods consume three times more water than less-affluent ones.

With Gov. Jerry Brown’s order requiring a 25% cut in water consumption, upscale communities are scrambling to develop stricter laws that will work where years of voluntary standards have not. Many believe it’s going to take a change in culture as well as city rules to hit the goal…

High water use by upscale cities is about more than lifestyle. These communities tend to have fewer apartments and less dense housing. The dwellings tend to be larger and include sprawling grounds in need of water. The UCLA study found that owners of single-family homes often over-water when restrictions are not in place.

One suggestion I’ve seen in multiple places is that municipal water in the United States is much too cheap so rates should be raised to help customers think twice. Yet, this cost wouldn’t be as much of a hindrance to wealthier residents as the wealthy can move more easily or purchase water from elsewhere. Additionally, using more water may just be seen as a necessary part of life, particularly if they see water usage as part of the good or high status life with amenities like fountains and pools or it is tied to property values. Does this mean we need regressive water rates that can be adjusted for different income levels so that the prices can properly prompt second thoughts?

More broadly, this hints at one of the less-discussed benefits of being wealthy: paying less attention to basic needs for resources like electricity, water, and gas or natural gas. Plus, they may have opportunities to profit off these resources – such as through investing in energy companies or influencing local design-making – in ways that lower or middle class residents cannot.

Approaching drastic water rationing in Sao Paulo

One downside of rapid urban growth is illustrated in Brazil where drastic water rationing may start soon:

In São Paulo, the country’s largest city with a metropolitan area of 20 million people, the main reservoir is at just 6 percent of capacity with the peak of the rainy season now past…

After January rains disappointed, and incentives to cut consumption fell short, São Paulo officials warned their next step could be to shut off customers’ water supply for as many as five days a week – a measure that would likely last until the next rainy season starts in October, if not longer.

State officials say they have not yet decided whether or when to implement such rationing, in part because they are still hoping for heavy rains in February and March. Indeed, thunderstorms in recent days have caused lakes to rise a bit.

Still, independent projections suggest that São Paulo’s main Cantareira reservoir could run out of water as soon as April without drastic cuts to consumption.

While this problem may seem far away, I imagine numerous big cities around the world would face major problems in addressing a shortage of certain resources if something “out of the ordinary” – whether weather or changing political conditions – occurred. Wealthier big cities are expected at the most basic level to have water, electricity, sewers, and other features of modern infrastructure but these could be threatened by a variety of factors. And while the article notes that residents and institutions are scrambling to meet the crisis, cities should have some sort of long-term planning for some of these foreseeable issues.

Threatening to cut off the NSA’s water supply in Utah

Here’s one way to fight a political battle against the NSA: consider stopping the flow of water to a facility you don’t like.

Lawmakers are considering a bill that would shut off the water spigot to the massive data center operated by the National Security Agency in Bluffdale, Utah.

The legislation, proposed by Utah lawmaker Marc Roberts, is due to go to the floor of the Utah House of Representatives early next year, but it was debated in a Public Utilities and Technology Interim Committee meeting on Wednesday. The bill, H.B. 161, directs municipalities like Bluffdale to “refuse support to any federal agency which collects electronic data within this state.”

The NSA brought its Bluffdale data center online about a year ago, taking advantage Utah’s cheap power and a cut-rate deal for millions of gallons of local water, used to cool the 1-million-square-foot building’s servers. Roberts’ bill, however, would prohibit the NSA from negotiating new water deals when its current Bluffdale agreement runs out in 2021.

The law seems like a long-shot to clear legislative hurdles when Utah’s legislature re-convenes next year, but Wednesday’s committee hearing was remarkable, nonetheless, says Nate Carlisle, a reporter with the Salt Lake Tribune who has waged a fight with the NSA and Bluffdale officials to determine how much water the data center is actually using. “What’s noteworthy is no one on the panel said: ‘Hey, wait a minute, we can’t do this,’” he says. “They had some specific concerns about the language of the bill, but there was no outright opposition.”

All of this does suggest an interesting tactic in the arsenal of local governments yet I have a hard time imagining the possible outcomes. The federal government finds an independent water supply? There is a massive lawsuit about whether a local government can limit the water supply to a federal agency? The threat pushes the federal government to move their facilities elsewhere? The federal government ensures any new facility has much longer contracts for basic services? Regardless, I would guess this situation wouldn’t be resolved quickly.

Related thought: given serious droughts – like the one in California – could the government require a larger share of water to maintain “critical” functions over the needs of other users?

 

Daily water allocation next in dry California?

Groups in California are considering daily water allocations per household to help conserve water in the current drought:

The latter represents the amount of water you are allowed to use per day. If you don’t know it, you probably should. Not knowing could cost you money. As California’s severe drought moves into a fourth year, state and local water agencies are working on something called “allocation-based rate structures,” a kind of precursor to water rationing that’s all the rage in Sacramento and in some areas such as Santa Cruz, Irvine and Santa Monica.

Here’s how it works: Your local water company, special district or city assigns you and your household a number in gallons — a daily water allocation. Usually, one number applies to maximum indoor water use, i.e. showers, kitchen and bathroom faucets, dishwashers, clothes washers, etc., and an extra allocation is assigned for outdoor use such as lawn irrigation.

Using census records, aerial photography and satellite imagery, an agency can determine a property’s efficient water usage.

At the Irvine Ranch Water District, number of residents, amount of landscaping and even medical needs are factored into a household’s water allocation or water budget.

It will be interesting to see how this is received and how much arguing there might be about the calculations. As the article goes on to note, one popular method is to start charging really high rates for people who exceed their water levels, which in some places are already set at about 60 gallons per person.

Drought leads to more lawn spray-painting, lawn removal in California

Painting the lawn is not new but the practice has picked up in California with the big drought underway:

For about $300, the New York Times reports, homeowners can transform their sun-baked brown lawns into lush, bright shades of green. According to the Times, “there are dozens of lawn paint options available, from longer-lasting formulas typically used on high-traffic turf such as ballparks and golf courses, to naturally derived products that rely on a highly concentrated pigment.”

Drew McClellan, who launched a lawn-spraying business in July, told the paper he has more requests than he can handle…

According to LawnLift, a San Diego lawn paint manufacturer, sales of its “all-natural, non-toxic and biodegradable grass and mulch paint” have tripled this year.

In April, Gov. Jerry Brown issued an executive order that limited the watering of “ornamental landscape or turf” to no more than two days per week. Violators are subject to fines of up to $500…

A spokesman for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California told The Associated Press that the consortium received requests to remove 2.5 million square feet in residential lawns in July, up from 99,000 in January. The Municipal Water District of Orange County is taking in 20 to 30 applications a day, the AP said. The Santa Clara Valley Water District, which serves Silicon Valley, received more than 1,700 requests.

Between the ripping out of lawns and painting the lawn, this is a rather large project. Two quick thoughts:

1. I wonder if this signals a long-term shift away from lawns in California. The drought may answer this question, particularly if it lasts a long time, but it would be interesting to see what happens if the drought ends soon: would people go back to lawns?

2. Could a green lawn now become even more of a status symbol, symbolizing that a person has the means to keep it going even under these dry conditions? Or, perhaps the shift away from lawns will be accompanied by the development of new status symbols in yards.

With diminishing water, privileging urban growth over farming in Arizona

If water supplies are dwindling, should cities or farmers get more of the water? One writer suggests Arizona has made a clear choice for cities:

The shift away from irrigated agriculture in Arizona hasn’t come without a fight. By some measures, farmers are still winning. According to the Arizona Department of Water Resources, more than two-thirds of Arizona’s water is still used to irrigate fields, down from a peak of 90 percent last century.

Decades ago, state officials in Arizona begin to plan for a future without water—and that meant sacrificing agriculture for future urban growth. A massive civil engineering project in the 1960s diverted part of the Colorado River to feed Phoenix and Tucson. Those cities could not exist in their current state without this unnatural influx of Rocky Mountain snowmelt. Now there’s tension across the region, as the realities of climate change and extreme weather catch up with the business-as-usual agricultural bedrock that laid the foundation for the economy here.

Hopefully, future dispatches in this series about water and drought in the Southwest will begin to address the normative questions: what is the proper ratio of water for cities and farmers? Is it necessarily bad if farmers can’t produce as much in Arizona and California (could more be produced elsewhere, do farmers need to shift to new crops, etc.)? Both farming and urban growth have changed the natural water patterns in the region but does one have a stronger claim to the water in the long run?

“Without Lake Mead, there would be no Las Vegas”

The 14 year drought in southern Nevada, northern Arizona, and southern California threatens Lake Mead and the water supply to Las Vegas and other communities. The ability to have such a city in the middle of a desert is quite remarkable. It rests on the construction of Hoover Dam:

HooverDamJul12

I’ve been there twice and I was impressed both times by the ability to put this all together in the 1930s. Yet, the dam is highly dependent on available water and weather patterns. Here is a look at the lower Lake Mead from the top of Hoover Dam in July 2012:

LakeMeadJul12

While this is partly a cautionary tale about the the limits of human consumption, it also presents an opportunity for human ingenuity. As the news report notes, “Las Vegas actually reuses 93% of its water.” Imagine if all cities in the world reached such levels. Thus, even with an extended drought, Las Vegas may continue to thrive:

BellagioFountainsJul12

The show must go on…